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Joseph (Joe) Croft (c. 1925–1996)

by Brenda L. Croft

This article was published:

Joe Croft (right) with son Lindsay, 1992

Joe Croft (right) with son Lindsay, 1992

Canberra Times

Joseph Croft (c. 1925–1996), surveyor and public servant, was likely born in 1925 on Victoria River Downs (VRD) station, Northern Territory, to Bessie, a Gurindji–Mudburra and Chinese woman, and Joe Croft, also known as ‘Handsome Joe.’ Handsome Joe was a renowned Territory character of Irish–Scots heritage who worked as a cook, gardener, station-hand, boxer, mailman, and wallaby street racer, and frequently contributed letters to local newspapers. The couple met on VRD’s Old Moolooloo outstation in 1923.

With an area of around 13,000 square miles (33,669 km2) in the 1920s, VRD was one of the largest cattle stations in the world. The station and region, though named after a far-distant British monarch, were the traditional homelands of the Karrangpurru (Karranga). Neighbouring homelands included the Bilinara (Bilinarra), Mudburra, Gurindji, Malngin, Nyarinman, Ngaliwurru, and Wardaman nations. European cattlemen began establishing stations in the region in the 1880s, their encroachment severely impacting First Nations communities. Irreversible change was wrought through the introduction of alien creatures, plants, and people, and through violence, including a number of massacres documented from oral accounts (Charola and Meakins 2016, 27–67), dispossession, and displacement.

On 1 July 1927 Mounted Constable Tom K. Hemmings detailed Bessie and young Joe’s removal from VRD to Darwin: ‘The following half-castes were sent to Darwin Half-Caste Home … Joe (Quadroon), & his half-caste mother named Bessie’ (LANT NTRS 2771). The Darwin home was the government facility for mixed-descent Aboriginal people, mainly children, to separate them from adults at the nearby Kahlin Compound. Joe remained there until September 1931 when he was separated from Bessie and, along with twenty-seven other boys, was transferred to the Pine Creek Half-Caste Home, 124 miles (200 km) south-east of Darwin, due to overcrowding and concerns over the close proximity of adults at Kahlin. Following Pine Creek’s closure in 1933, he was sent to The Bungalow, a home for Aboriginal children of mixed-descent in Alice Springs.

Percy Smith, an Anglican priest, was a regular visitor to The Bungalow. He advocated for the children there to receive the same educational opportunities as non-Aboriginal children. His efforts paid off when Joe achieved high marks in the 1939 Qualifying certificate examination. The following year Joe won a government scholarship that enabled him to attend All Souls’ School, Charters Towers, Queensland. He later recalled:

I could have either gone to Adelaide or somewhere else … Father Smith had a brother [Eric Smith] who was secretary of the Anglican diocese in North Queensland. He lived in Townsville and Father Smith probably thought that he could keep an eye on me while I was at boarding school because Charters Towers wasn’t that far away, so I went to Charters Towers. (Croft 1989a)

Students from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds attended All Souls: Chinese, Finnish, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, and Russian. Joe was the first Aboriginal student. By the time he left, other First Nations students were also attending, notably from Palm Island. In 1943, his final year, he was school captain and captain of the football, cricket, and swimming teams, winning numerous prizes and awards.

The recipient of a Commonwealth bursary, Croft enrolled in an engineering degree at the University of Queensland in 1944, inspired by a childhood memory from Pine Creek of seeing ‘the train go by’ and knowing that the ‘controller of the engine … was the engineer’ (Croft 1989b). He may have been the first Aboriginal student to attend university in Australia. However, with World War II still raging, he was ‘very unsettled’:

I had this feeling that I wanted to be out there, defending the country, my country. So, I didn't do my studies that year, I played a lot of sport … [and] when the results came out I didn't do too good, so I joined the army. (Croft 1989b)

He enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force on 3 March 1945 at Townsville and, after completing infantry training, was appointed lance corporal in October, a month after the end of World War II. At the time of his discharge on 30 September 1946, he was working in the Records Unit, Brisbane. He returned to the University of Queensland in 1947 but left the following year without completing a degree. Until 1950 he worked at various jobs, including cane cutting, before becoming a contracting surveyor on dam infrastructure for Thiess Bros in Queensland and Victoria.

While working on the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme in 1959, Croft met Dorothy Jean Stone (1938—2010), a young woman from a working-class family in Hurstville, Sydney, who was personal secretary to the second-in-charge on the SMHES. They met at a dance in the high country. One of few single women present, Stone received three marriage proposals that night; Croft was not one of those who proposed, although he did ask her to dance. The following year he headed north to Queensland to work as a surveyor on the Townsville–Mount Isa railway and Stone visited him. On 9 June 1962, at St Mark’s Church of England, South Hurstville, they married, afterwards driving to Perth, Western Australia, in a two-tone blue Holden, towing a silver caravan. Croft had been appointed a surveyor on the Perth–Kalgoorlie railway, assisting with the changeover to national standard gauge. The couple’s first two children, Brenda and Lindsay, were born in Perth in 1964 and 1967, respectively. In 1968 the family returned to the east coast to be closer to Dorothy’s parents who lived at Ballina, New South Wales.

Croft had spent a night with his mother en route to Charters Towers as a teenager in 1940 after nine years apart, but otherwise had had no contact with her. He assumed that she had died and considered himself an orphan. Needing a copy of his birth certificate to apply for work as a surveyor on the Toonumbar Dam, Northern Rivers region, he wrote to H. C. Giese, director of welfare in the Northern Territory (1954–73). Giese informed him that Bessie was alive and living at Retta Dixon Home, Darwin, where she worked as a laundress. Croft later learned that he had a number of older and younger half-sisters and younger half-brothers. He could not afford to visit at that time but commenced correspondence with his mother with the assistance of Amelia (Lalie) Shankleton, a missionary at the home.

From Ballina the Crofts moved to Toonumbar Dam. Their third child, Timothy, was born at Lismore in March 1971, the year the dam was completed. The following year they purchased a newsagency at Woodburn on the north coast, relocating there soon after. The purchase was funded by a small business loan from the short-lived Department of the Environment, Aborigines, and the Arts. The family operated the newsagency for three years, during which Croft worked closely with the local Bundjalung community at nearby Cabbage Tree Island, helping to establish an arts and crafts enterprise. He sold small works by First Nations artists from Central Australia and the Top End at the newsagency.

In 1972 Dorothy entered a Mother’s Day writing competition in the magazine New Idea. Rather than a story about her own mother, she related the story of Croft’s separation from Bessie. Her essay won second prize: a choice of flowers or a telephone call. She chose the latter, enabling Croft to speak to his mother for the first time in over thirty years. Upon selling the newsagency in early 1974, the family visited Darwin, reuniting with Bessie at Retta Dixon Home, where they stayed for three weeks in May. Bessie was beloved by all the residents, particularly the children who considered her their de facto grandmother. She passed away in December that year.

Croft gained employment with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra as a liaison officer in 1975. He enjoyed engaging with First Nations peoples from all over the country and acting as a mentor to young people who had relocated to the capital in the heady days of self-determination (the Whitlam government had introduced the policy of self-determination in April 1973). Serving on the Anti-Discrimination Board of New South Wales in the late 1970s, he worked closely with Al Grassby, documenting discrimination against First Nations peoples; Grassby was the first federal commissioner for community relations and was responsible for administering the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. By the early 1980s Croft was working as an officer of the Aboriginal Development Commission and was treasurer of the Aboriginal Corporation for Sporting and Recreational Activities, chaired by fellow former Bungalow resident Charles Perkins.

Continuing his interest in First Nations arts and crafts, Croft organised exhibitions at venues throughout Canberra, including a significant exhibition of work from Maningrida, Arnhem Land, at the newly established Canberra School of Art Gallery in July 1983. During the 1980s he worked with the Ramingining dance group, which included the renowned Yolngu cultural creatives David Gulpilil and Bobby Bunungurr. He facilitated the group’s participation in the International Exhibition, Tsukuba, Japan, in 1985, and supported Gulpilil during his role in Crocodile Dundee (1986).

Retiring from the Commonwealth Public Service, Croft relocated to Sydney in 1988. He was a director of Coo-ee Emporium, Paddington, which sold Aboriginal and Oceanic art, before establishing his own First Nations arts business at The Rocks Markets. Always energetic, he organised exhibitions and presented lectures at primary and secondary schools, universities, and cultural institutions in Canberra and Sydney. He led tours to the Northern Territory, maintaining cultural ties with family and friends, especially other Stolen Generations members, and frequently travelled to Queensland to see former school and university friends to whom he remained close. In 1989 he travelled to significant sites of his childhood as part of a family history research project funded by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Intending to write his autobiography, he interviewed family members and other Stolen Generations survivors and travelled to his traditional homelands, Kalkaringi and Daguragu, where he interviewed senior community elders, including ‘Hoppy’ Mick Rangiari who called him a brother.

Croft and Dorothy had separated in 1981; they divorced in 1991. After remarrying at Stanmore, Sydney, in April 1992, Croft and his second wife, Patricia, moved to Springwood in the Blue Mountains. His son Lindsay was named Young Canberra Citizen of the Year that year. A graduate of the University of Canberra and the Australian National University, Lindsay was awarded a Harkness fellowship to undertake postgraduate research at Harvard University, United States of America, in 1993. His sudden death following a car accident at El Paso, Texas, deeply affected Croft’s physical and emotional wellbeing, resulting in the breakdown of his marriage.

Three months after Lindsay’s death, Croft was hit by a truck in Sydney’s inner-west and spent three weeks in intensive care at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown; the nursing staff respectfully requested that concerned friends cease sending floral arrangements because there was not enough room to display them. He remained in hospital for over a year, eventually moving to Leichhardt to live with his daughter Brenda in 1995. Later he moved to Allawah, an aged-care hostel for Aboriginal people at Granville. Run by the Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS), Allawah housed a maximum of eight residents. Croft loved living alongside other Elders, including Bundjalung Elder and author Ruby Langford Ginibi, and taking trips to cultural events and places throughout New South Wales organised by the AMS. He continued to write draft chapters of his autobiography and to nurture his extensive network of family and friends through correspondence and telephone calls, but he no longer exuded his usual sense of energy and engagement with the world. Hospitalised with chronic myeloid leukemia in April 1996, he died at Eversleigh Hospice, Marrickville, on 22 July 1996. A large crowd attended his funeral at St Andrews’ Cathedral, Sydney, on 31 July. Charles Perkins, Linda Burney (later a Federal government minister), Al Grassby, son Timothy on behalf of Brenda, and lifelong friends delivered eulogies. A second service was held at Kalkaringi Baptist Church, Northern Territory, on 22 August 1996, overseen by Gurindji Elders. His ashes were buried at Kalkaringi cemetery.

Family and friends established the Joseph and Lindsay Croft scholarship at the Australian National University in 2002, and All Souls and the University of Queensland alumni and friends initiated the Joseph (Joe) Croft Indigenous award at St Johns’ College in 2015. In recognition of both father and son’s advocacy of higher education for First Nations students, University of Technology Sydney established the Lindsay Croft Postgraduate Memorial scholarship in 1994. AIATSIS holds his collection of oral history interviews, including one that he conducted with Lindsay. A street in the Canberra suburb of Bonner is named for Croft and his son Lindsay Joseph.

 

Brenda L. Croft is a Gurindji, Malngin, and Mudburra woman with Anglo-Australian, Chinese, German, and Irish heritage. She is the eldest child of Joseph Croft.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Charola, Erika, and Felicity Helen Meakins. Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016
  • Croft, Joe. Interview by Peter Read, 6 April 1989 [1989a]. Peter Read collection. National Library of Australia
  • Croft, Joe. Oral History Interviews in Alice Springs, Wattie Creek and Darwin, NT. 1989b. AIATSIS
  • Library & Archives NT. Police Station, Timber Creek, NTRS 2771, Letterbook
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX63365
  • Personal knowledge of IADB subject
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Half-Caste for University.’ 10 March 1944, 4
  • Wright, Tony. ‘The Many Journeys of Joe Croft.’ Canberra Times, 9 September 1988, 1

Additional Resources

Citation details

Brenda L. Croft, 'Croft, Joseph (Joe) (c. 1925–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/croft-joseph-joe-32006/text39550, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joe Croft (right) with son Lindsay, 1992

Joe Croft (right) with son Lindsay, 1992

Canberra Times

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

c. 1925
Victoria River Downs station, Northern Territory, Australia

Death

22 July, 1996 (aged ~ 71)
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (leukemia)

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